On January 11th, 1913 a baby boy drew his first breath, in the parlour of a big brick farmhouse, out in a relatively newly-settled part of the country.
His parents, Burnham and Mary, welcomed their second child and second son with joy. The doctor and attending midwife were concerned because the baby seemed a bit frail. However, the child’s parents were confident that this little baby would be just fine. He was named George Burnham and thus began a remarkable journey.
Baby became child and his physical frailty was indeed evident at times. The need to substitute quiet activity for rambunctious play led to a companionship with books, and the development of an extraordinary mind. He graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and could have gone on to do absolutely anything at university and as a career. However, his heart was on the farm and he decided to stay there. His parents weren’t young when he was born, so at the age of fifteen he began to take over the running of the farm.
His natural affinity with nature made farming a very fulfilling, successful career choice for him. However, that mind constantly demanded stimulation and he became a self-taught scholar. He was well-read on countless subjects, but there were a few areas of knowledge that stood out. He was an amateur archaeologist whose artifact finds contributed to the piecing together of the ancient history of our province. He became an expert philatelist, horticulturist, and historian, a writer, a local politician, and generally devoted his free time to the service of his community. His name will forever be linked locally with health care, education, soil conservation, promotion of the natural beauty of the area, and exposing youth to new experiences. He held many titles over the years, and earned many accolades. He had a hospital wing named after him in honour of his being the one who led the charge in getting the local hospital built, as well as his many years as Chairman of the Board. But, he remained the same humble soul to the end. He simply did what he felt needed to be done. End of story.
In his early twenties he was told that he had a short life expectancy, so he closed the door on any possibilities of marriage and children. Years went by and one day he realized that he was nearing fifty. So much for the short life expectancy. At that point he thought that his chances of having his own family had passed him by and he would have to content himself with being favourite uncle to his nieces and nephews. Then, along came a younger redhead who caught his eye, much to the horror of his very straight-laced, pillars of society, paragons of virtue, family. Despite the objections, he married at the age of forty-nine and the first of his five children was born two days after his fiftieth birthday. Scandalous!
His nieces and nephews never forgave him for marrying, I’m sure, but their perceived loss was definitely the gain of his children. He was a bit old-fashioned in some ways, but surprisingly liberal-minded and forward-thinking in others. His extra years of living before becoming a father made him an endless fountain of knowledge and experience. He was a gentle, sensitive, intelligent man by nature and parented accordingly.
Having his young family seemed to keep him young, both physically and mentally. The older he got, the more energy he seemed to have. The puny child who was given little chance of survival into adulthood raised all of his “late in life” children to adulthood, saw them embark on their lives, saw all of them married, and saw his first three grandchildren born. Two were too young to remember him now, but the eldest was twelve years old when she lost her grandpa, hero and kindred spirit. She had him for far too short a time, but his influence will be with her forever.
In the spring of 1999 this then eighty-six-year-old man started to feel a bit tired. He was still actively farming and most fifty-year-olds wouldn’t have had the stamina to get through what he was doing in a day. However, it came as a shock to him to realize that he couldn’t keep up the old pace anymore. Over the summer he noticed his energy flagging even more and he suddenly realized that maybe he might have to think about retirement “one of these days”. By the end of summer it became obvious that he was going to have to make some serious decisions. He had been farming for over seventy years at that point and the idea of being forced to give it up was breaking his heart. He decided to go through just one more winter with the cattle.
So, on a beautiful September day he went out to his favourite field to cut a late crop of hay. He particularly liked that field because it was part of the original homestead and was in an especially beautiful setting. There was a clear blue sky, warm sunshine, and gentle breeze, and I’m sure that he felt utter joy as he steered the tractor into the field. At some point in the next hour his life ended, in his field, under that blue sky, and with the warm sunshine on his face. He died “with his boots on” as he had always wished, and with his mental capacities fully intact. A fitting end for this man’s life.
Dad, I celebrate the man you were, your spirit which will endure forever, and the gifts you left behind for those who loved you.
I miss you this week and always,
**My long time readers might recognize this as a rerun as I first wrote it for what would have been Dad’s 90th birthday in January of 2003. It still says it all …